Emirates Economy vs Etihad Economy – What Airline Is Best?

Between them, Etihad and Emirates are two of the world’s better-known airline brands. The Middle Eastern long-haul specialists are known for their big planes, deep pockets, and glitzy premium cabins. But what, if like most people, you were stuck down the back of the bus? When you’re flying long-haul economy, which is the best airline? Etihad or Emirates?

Emirates or Etihad? Who has the better economy class product? Photo: Los Angeles International Airport

Which airline has the best network?

This year has trimmed both airlines’ reach, but the Middle Eastern carriers have generally done their best to keep their departures board interesting. In November, Etihad is flying to around 60 destinations across North America, Europe, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, South Asia, Asia, and Australia. Where is it not flying? Right now, Etihad doesn’t have a presence in South America or most of Africa.

Emirates is flying to more destinations right now, around 90. South America is also a black hole for Emirates, but it has a substantial presence across Africa. Emirates is also particularly strong in Europe, the Middle East, and India. Because Emirates flies to more destinations, from a network point of view, Emirates takes this prize.

Emirates has a better network than Etihad. Photo: Emirates

Who has the best planes?

Etihad has over 100 planes, including 10 of the crowd-pleasing A380s. However, none of Etihad’s A380s are flying right now, and their future is under question. The remainder of Etihad’s long-haul fleet comprises Boeing 777s and 787 Dreamliners. Since beginning to fly in 2011, travelers have never been wildly enthused about the Dreamliner economy product. That’s not just an Etihad issue, but with airlines everywhere who operate the 787. That said, Etihad’s economy class layout on its 787s are 3-3-3, whereas it is 3-4-3 across its 777 fleet.

Emirates has over 260 aircraft, pretty much all either A380s or Boeing 777s. Emirates has four 777 variants, but all offer 3-4-3 economy class cabins. It’s the same 3-4-3 layout across the Emirates A380s. But most economy class travelers like the A380 because it is roomy. Unlike Etihad, Emirates is presently operating some (but not all) of its A380s. Because of the A380s, Emirates has the better aircraft type right now for an economy class traveler.

Etihad has some lovely A380s, and it’s a shame they are not flying. Photo: Etihad

The best ground experience?

Let’s face it, whether you fly through Abu Dhabi or Dubai, their airports are pretty good from a traveler’s perspective. An economy class ticket on either airline will not get you lounge access unless you hold elite frequent flyer status with that airline. However, both airports have decent pay-per-use lounges.

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Your luggage allowances

Neither airline has a straightforward checked-in luggage policy for economy class travelers. Etihad’s luggage policy is determined by weight, rather than the number of bags. Where you are flying to is also a factor. But the free allowance will range from 23kg on the cheapest economy fare type right up to 35kg on a fully flexible economy class ticket.

Emirates’ economy class check-in allowance also depends on the fare bucket you are in. Economic class free checked-in bag allowances range from 20kg if you travel on an economy special fare to 35kg if you are traveling on an economy flex plus fare. Like Etihad, you can check-in as many bags as you like, provided the total weight doesn’t exceed your fare allowance. But because Etihad’s allowance for travelers on the cheapest tickets is 23kg versus Emirates’ 20kg, I’m going to give this one to Etihad.

It’s all about the seat

Whether you’re on a bigger A380 or a smaller Dreamliner, seat sizes won’t vary much. Rather, your perception of space will.

On Emirates A380s (there are three variants), economy class seat pitch will vary between 32″ and 34″. The seat width is generally 18″. The airline operates four types of Boeing 777s. Across them, the economy class seat pitch will vary between 32″ and 34″. Seat width varies between 17″ and 18″.

The economy class cabin on an Emirates Boeing 777-200ER. Photo: Emirates

Over at Etihad, depending on the aircraft type, economy class seat pitch will vary between 31″ and 33.5″. More standard is the seat width, usually 17.5″. But on Etihad’s Dreamliners, seat width is just over 17″, perhaps lending credence to the idea that Dreamliners are especially squeezy for economy class passengers.

Overall, there’s not much between Etihad and Emirates when it comes to economy class seats. Perhaps Emirates has the edge because if you jag the right 777, you might end up with 34″ of pitch and 18″ of width – not bad for an economy class seat.

The Etihad economy class product. Photo: Etihad

Regardless of where you sit in Etihad’s economy class cabin, your seat will have a headrest, adjustable back support, and legroom. Each seat also has USB charging points, inflight entertainment screens (more on that later), and adjustable device holders. Flight attendants are also happy to provide complimentary blankets and pillows. At Emirates, it’s much the same deal.

What’s for dinner in economy class?

With meals onboard, everyone will have different preferences.

Emirates’ food menu is inspired by regional flavors and spices, with meals served on each flight that reflect the local culture. A flight to Australia or New Zealand, for example, might feature minted lamb sausages with mashed potatoes and vegetables. In contrast, chicken with caramelized plums or lamb Brochette with Arabic spices might be the main course on a Middle East flight. You can have a look at a sample economy class meal on an Emirates long-haul service here.

Emirates also serves specially made kids’ and baby meals on colorful trays and snack boxes made especially for younger flyers.

An Emirates long-haul economy class meal. Photo: Emirates

Etihad has a different approach when it comes to meals and drinks onboard. While they offer the same range of specialized meals depending on passengers’ dietary requirements, Etihad actually offers way more food than you might need.

Not only would the average flight have two main meal services, but they also feature two small snack services and a larger snack for midflight. Plus, there is additional food at the rear of the plane (for passengers to self serve) at any time. Lastly, drink service is conducted three times during meals (before, during, and after), ensuring that you have plenty to drink. This attention to detail is pretty great in our books.

Drinks, alcoholic and non-alcoholic, are complimentary on both Emirates and Etihad.

Both airlines perform well when it comes to their food and drink offerings, but I reckon Etihad has the edge.

An Etihad economy class meal. Photo: Etihad

Inflight entertainment and technology

Let’s take a look at the two different entertainment options onboard.

Emirates’ entertainment system, ice, has won countless Skytrax awards for its best-in-the-business features and has been voted the best around for 13 consecutive years. And for a good reason: With 4,000 ‘channels’ of movies, TV, music, and games, in addition to podcasts, radio shows, kids’ channels, and live sports and news, Emirates’ entertainment is truly top-notch. Emirates also has easy-to-reach power outlets in most economy seats. On the standard economy seat, Emirates screens are 13.3 inches.

Etihad has a very similar offering, with the latest movies and television shows on demand. However, they seem to be lacking the solid range that Emirates has on offer. But if you are flying and only watching the latest movies, does it really matter? Etihad screens are only 11.8 inches big and are slightly slanted.

In terms of WiFi, Emirates offers WiFi internet for the whole flight for US$9.99- $19.99, depending on the length of the flight. There are some cheaper options if you just want messaging services, and elite frequent flyers will also get a special WiFi deal on Emirates.

On Etihad, non-elite economy class passengers can pay to access WiFi, ranging from US$5.95 for 50MB to $29.95 for 300MB – which frankly, is a lot of money for not much WiFi.

All up, two good inflight entertainment options, but it’s always hard to beat Emirates in the inflight entertainment stakes. They set the IFE benchmark.

Emirates ice inflight entertainment system is exceptional. Photo: Emirates

Who has the best economy class product? Emirates or Etihad?

At the end of the day, these things are subjective. Food may be important to one traveler but irrelevant to another. Someone will be obsessed about the WiFi allowance; someone else will sweat over the ½ inch of extra seat width. Personally, I prefer Etihad even if Emirates win on more of the criteria we’ve looked at here.

2029 customer reviews on SkyTrax gives the Emirates economy class product a score of six out of ten. In contrast, 1523 customer reviews on SkyTrax gives the Etihad economy class product a score of just four out of ten.

What do you think? Given a choice, who would you fly with? Let us know in the comments below.